“Your story is so beautiful.”
I hear these words a lot and am never sure how to respond. Sometimes with an awkward smile or thank you, but honestly I have a hard time calling everything I’ve been through beautiful. The overcoming, the life lessons, and the faith that was built along the way? Sure. I guess it is a story of picking up the pieces of my life and building something beautiful. The sickness, the loss, the heartbreak that got me here? I’m not so sure.
I’ve started to accept the fact that I’m not your average 20 something year old. I used to shy away from conversations where people would call me brave or tell me that they could never have survived what I’ve been through. I used to feel that way too. I’d tell J every once in a while that I wouldn’t be able make it if something ever happened to him. I never thought I’d actually be in a situation where that statement would be put to the test. We had a connection that transcended anything from this side of eternity. The kind of bond that you read about in books or believe only exists in movies. The kind of love where your souls are tethered by a golden thread that you know had been woven together years before you were even born.
I could talk about our love for hours, but let’s rewind for a second so you’re able to piece this story together a little easier.
J = Joseph (or Joe) Marlo Gilliam Jr. The love of my life, my very best friend, and better half x10. We met when I was just turning 20 and in my senior year at Abilene Christian University. We had been connected a couple of years prior because he went to Purdue and played football with one of my best friends from middle and high school, Ryan. I felt like all of my dreams were coming true the first time I saw Joe on Twitter in 2010. Yes, you read that correctly. Not when I saw him in person/we met for the first time (of course that solidified what I already knew), but as I was doing my cyberstalking years prior, trying to figure out who this man was that Ryan was friends with, I knew I had happened upon someone special.
I was living life just north of Dallas, TX where I was born and raised and J lived in West Lafayette where he was finishing school at Purdue. When people hear our story without context they’re always wondering how in the world we met. Outside of my Twitter stalking, it was Ryan who introduced us. Joe and I were long distance for two years before I moved to West Lafayette and then eventually Indianapolis where we “grew up together”. We were both growing into the adult versions of ourselves and figuring out life together. Somewhere along the way J asked me to marry him and I said (a very tearful) yes.
We got married on July 16, 2016 and it was a Dallas brunch wedding with chicken & waffles and a bloody mary bar — in true Dallas fashion. It was small and intimate and not like anything I’d ever imagined because I didn’t see myself as someone who wanted to have a wedding. I just wanted to be married to J, but I’m so glad he wanted a wedding (even though he did 0 of the planning). It was the perfect day; we said our vows and everyone cried with us when we promised “in sickness and in health” because they knew what we had been through that led us to this moment. When we got married, we thought all of our troubles were behind us which I know is silly and naive to say, but we had already been through so much together. We thought the worst was over and our cake topper even gave us the reminder that the best was yet to come.
Just a few years before this I was diagnosed with aplastic anemia — a bone marrow disease that prevents your bone marrow from producing new blood cells. I went through several rounds of chemotherapy, horse protein treatments (as awful as it sounds), transfusions and a lot of doctors trying to figure out what was wrong with me before healing became a reality for me, but J was there every step of the way. Even though we were still long distance at the time, he flew down and stayed with me in the hospital during his spring break. Chemo was brutal and my treatment plan was aggressive. When my hair started falling out, J never made me feel anything short of beautiful and was the one who helped me shave my head when the hair didn’t stop falling out. It was a long road, but the promise of living a healed and whole life was restored to me. J and I were so excited and expectant for whatever was next because we knew it at least had to be better than that season.
I didn’t think that lightning could strike twice, but it did when J was diagnosed with a grade 4 terminal spinal glioblastoma not even a year after we were married. We were on a birthday trip celebrating his 25th trip around the sun when life changed in an instant. One day we were roaming around NYC with our best friend Ryan, celebrating life. And the next day we were in a New York hospital getting the news that there was inflammation on J’s spine that turned out to be cancer.
The tumor behaved exactly as the doctors had predicted despite countless treatments and experimental drugs. J passed away on September 11, 2018 and was welcomed into heaven with a fully restored body.
There’s a J sized hole in my life that will likely never heal, but I’m learning to live with that emptiness. I’m learning that life can feel happy and sad, full and empty, painful and comforting all within the same breath.
I am who I am because of what I’ve been through and I show up in this space the way that I do for that same reason. My battle with aplastic anemia opened my eyes to so much about the products we use and how we expose ourselves everyday to toxins that are working against us. I share a lot about wellness and non-toxic living for this reason. I share a lot about grief because it’s the journey I am on and will be for the rest of my life. I am learning what it looks like to own my grief instead of shying away from it to make other people comfortable. I’m learning how to spin gold out of this crazy hand that life has dealt me and you’re welcome to join me on that journey as well.
I’m not sure if it’s a beautiful story or not, but it’s mine.
If you want to get to know me beyond the big life events, check out my blog post on 20 things you wouldn’t know about me from social media.
Thank you for being here and reading along.